sustainable product designSustainable Brands Boot Camp’s sixth session served as an introduction to sustainable design. Nathan Shedroff provided an overview of the principles, frameworks and tools employed by sustainable product designers and discussed some of the design strategies implemented today by leaders in this field.

by Aysu Katun, Green Economy Post

As part of the Sustainable Brands Boot Camp online seminar series, Sustainable Life Media invited experience design pioneer Nathan Shedroff to be guest speaker at its sixth session on “Sustainable Product Design – An Overview of Prevailing Approaches”.

Shedroff is chair of the Design Strategy MBA program at the California College of the Arts (CCA) and has written extensively on design and business issues, including Experience Design 1 and Making Meaning, along with his website.

The session served as an excellent introduction to sustainable design. Shedroff provided an overview of the principles, frameworks and tools employed by sustainable product designers and discussed some of the design strategies implemented today by leaders in this field. He also provided valuable resources on each topic he covered, which many may find helpful. A summary of the key takeaways from his session are presented below along with suggested resources.


There are three frameworks used in sustainable product design: natural capitalism, natural step, and cradle to cradle.

1. Natural Capitalism is based on the notion that the global economy is dependent on natural resources and ecosystem services that nature provides. It recognizes the critical interdependency between the production and use of human-made capital and the maintenance and supply of natural capital, and is based on four principles:

  • Radically Increase the Productivity of Natural Resources
  • Shift to Biologically Inspired Production Models and Materials
  • Move to a “Service-and-Flow” Business Model
  • Reinvest in Natural Capital

2. The Natural Step: While Natural Capitalism takes into consideration manufactured, financial, human and natural capital, The Natural Step framework concentrates on financial, social and environmental impacts. The strategies developed as a result of the Natural Step framework depend on four “systems conditions”.

  1. Substances from the Earth’s crust should not accumulate in the environment
  2. Substances produced by society should not increase in the biosphere
  3. We must preserve the productivity and biodiversity of the ecosystem
  4. Resources should be used fairly and efficiently to meet human needs

3. Cradle to Cradle design takes its inspiration from nature, in which there is no place for the concept of waste, but in which waste = food. The purpose of the Cradle to Cradle design is to restore continuous cycles of biological (organic materials) as well as technical nutrients (non-toxic synthetic materials that have no negative effects on the environment) with long term positive effects on profitability, the environment and human health. Some of the underlying principles of Cradle to Cradle framework include:

  • Eliminate hazardous materials
  • Consider the entire lifecycle of products
  • Materials should be upcycled (the process of converting waste materials into new materials or products of better quality or a higher environmental value)
  • Less bad does not equal good


Shedroff concentrated on five tools that aid in the design process of sustainable products.

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is a technique used to assess the environmental aspects and potential impacts associated with a product, process, or service. It involves making detailed measurements during the manufacture of the product, from the mining of the raw materials used in its production and distribution, through to its use, possible re-use or recycling, and its eventual disposal.

Shedroff states that while there are many challenges involved in conducting LCAs such as a lack of water or energy usage tracking systems in most companies, the act of conducting an LCA for even one product can be a great learning experience for companies who want to identify where in a product’s life cycle resources are consumed the most so that they can take actions to minimize this usage.

Total Beauty is based on the notion that while products may look attractive on the surface, they may have hidden ecological and social impacts. Total beauty is a technique created to score a product so that businesses will know where to focus their improvement efforts. Scoring is based on whether a product is:

  • Efficient: The product in manufacture and use requires 90% less materials, energy and water than products providing equivalent utility did in 1990
  • Cyclic: The product is made from compostable organic materials or from minerals that are continuously recycled in a closed loop
  • Solar: The product in manufacture and use consumes only renewable energy that is cyclic and safe
  • Safe: All releases to air, water, land or space are food for other systems
  • Social: Product manufacture and use supports basic human rights and natural justice

Biomimicry: “is an emerging discipline that studies nature’s best ideas
and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems”.

Social Return on Investment (SROI) “is an attempt to measure the social and financial value created by a non-profit, NGO or business.” The measurements include tracking social outcomes of ordinarily difficult to monetize measures of social value, such as increases in self-esteem and social support systems, or improvements in housing stability. As Shedroff admits, this is a new tool that needs to be developed further.

Sustainability Helix is a tool that helps organizations assess their level of involvement as well as ways to integrate sustainability over time across many organizational functions. It tracks efforts in six categories of key business functions (management, operations, HR, product innovation, marketing, stakeholders) through five levels of commitment (no commitment, exploration, experimentation, leadership, restoration) to sustainable principles and actions.


Shedroff recommends the implementation of the following design strategies that are being employed by leaders in the field and have proven to be successful. The strategies are listed under four categories: reduce, reuse, recycle, restore.


  • Design for use – make things that truly improve people’s lives, give them meaning, and are usable and useful to them.
  • Dematerialization – reduce the material and energy used in the manufacturing, use, recycling, and disposal of products and services.
  • Materials and energy substitution – substitute more sustainable and less toxic materials and energy.
  • Localization – design solutions and systems to reduce material and energy travel and support local communities.
  • Transmaterialization – redesign and deploy products as services that focus on customer value instead of physical things (e.g. Zipcar).
  • Informationalization – translate solutions into data and send the recipe for the solution, not the solution itself (e.g. digital music, videos).


  • Design for durability – the most sustainable solutions are products that don’t need to be quickly discarded or wholly disposed of when one part breaks.
  • Design for reuse – intended reuse of products in other contexts can extend product life and divert them from disposal.


  • Design for disassembly – clearly marked and easily disassembled products will more likely be recycled.
  • Close the loop – systems that create solutions across a myriad of stakeholders are more robust and more sustainable.
  • Design for effectiveness – dematerialization and increased efficiency is a great start but there is higher fruit to pick that involves rethinking value.


  • Design for systems – transforming systems at higher levels creates the most radical, sustainable change.

You can get more detailed information about these strategies from Shedroff’s book,Design Is the Problem: The Future of Design Must be Sustainable. Nathan Shedroff’s other books include Experience Design 1.1, an update to his 2001 book; and Experience Design 1 Cards, a design tool based on his book that helps designers put the approach into practice.


© 2010, Aysu Katun. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: Aysu Katun (18 Articles)

Aysu Katun is an associate editor at the Green Economy Post. She received her MBA degree from The Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business, where she focused on sustainability, marketing and strategy. At Fisher, she was a leading member of Net Impact's OSU chapter, which won the Chapter of the Year Award in 2009 . Before beginning her MBA, Aysu worked at Hewlett Packard in Turkey. A passionate traveler, Aysu has been to 27 countries and worked in three. Due to her international experience, Aysu is able to bring a unique perspective to sustainability issues in business.